Democracy and Oligarchy – The Missing Bond

MIKE Ozekhome
MIKE Ozekhome

By Mike Ozekhome, SAN


For the past two weeks, we have been x-raying the missing links between democracy and autocracy. So far, we have dissected this form of government (autocracy) in a way and have shown its limitation vis-a-vis democracy. For instance, the people are helplessagainst an autocrat, who dominates them with power and force. Today, we shall conclude same. Thereafter, we shall commence and conclude another form of government, Oligarchy.

AUTOCRACY (conclusion)

Autocratic governments are not the most efficient or effective type of government. Nor are they the best. Autocratic leaders often don’t take the best interest of their subjects into account when passing or implementing laws. As a result, many of the events that occur have a negative effect on the people living in that country.


Oligarchy is a form of governance in which administrative power is vested in a few people in the society. The class of people in power is distinguished by wealth, family ties, nobility, military or religious control. The control of oligarchic states is passed from one generation to the other although inheritance of the family wealth is not necessary. A majority of oligarchies are known to be tyrannical, relying on the submission and obedience of the public. Oppression is used to subdue those who rise against the state.


The term “oligarchy” was pioneered by Aristotle to refer to the rule of the rich. As far back as the 600s BCE, Greek city-states sported aristocracies in Sparta and Athens. Moreover, another antiquated example is Venice during the 14th century, where rich nobles called “patricians” controlled all the financial and political affairs of the city-state.

But Greece was not the only one – Russia has long been considered an oligarchy, up until 1991. But many have arguedthat Russia still practice it. In fact, all communist regimes could be considered oligarchies, where the few in power make executive decisions for the rest of the country or regime – often for their personal benefit or agenda. Throughout the Soviet Union, an oligarchy was in place to manage affairs often suited mostly for the most powerful and wealthy. And, as countless publications including The New York Times have claimed, the Russian oligarchy is alive and well.

Today the system is better known as plutocracy. A majority of today’s de Jure democratic governments are de facto oligarchies since they are ruled by a small group of people from powerful and influential families with shared interests. These groups of people spread power and elect leaders from among themselves in disguise of being democratic. Modern-day oligarchy might be mistaken for democracy although it is not true democracy. In fourth century BCE, Athenians revolted against the oligarchical government and restored democracy by selecting government officers from large groups of adult volunteers. The Athenians even drew judges and jurors from the public and vested them with the power to provide justice and overrule the Assembly.


Oligarchies are formed for many reasons, but mostly when an elite class (either those who are very skilled or informed in certain areas, very rich, or very powerful by other means) decide to take over control of a government or corporation.

In democracies, oligarchies are formed when the general population would rather trust those who pose to be better equipped to lead than those in charge. Oligarchies could also be formed in a democracy when the people aren’t actively involved in government or are facing a crisis. Oligarchies could come into existence by usurping power of ineffectual leaders, including kings and tyrants.


One of the main pros of oligarchy is that it puts power in the hands of people who are often experts and can make informed decisions for the populous or company. It therefore is more efficient than every single person being able to make decisions, and can often free up people to focus on their own work or lives.


There are plenty of downsides to an oligarchical government or management structure. While oligarchies may free up others to focus on their craft or daily lives, they can tend to skew decisions and policies to benefit themselves.

In that manner, oligarchies tend to increase income inequality, which helps the oligarchy grow in power and wealth. Along those lines, oligarchies can often manipulate the financial markets to their advantage, even if they are not natural or do not comply with the rules of supply and demand.

Also, oligarchies government can perpetuate bad policies by keeping those who are similar to them in power, which can create an unhealthy corporate or government community.


Several modern-day governments are allegedly oligarchies in nature.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Anne Applebaum, even dared to call the President of United States of America, Donald Trump an oligarch, writing in the Washington Post that “the real problem with Trump isn’t that he is sympathetic to Russian oligarchs, it’s that he is a Russian oligarch, albeit one who happens to be American.”

Applebaum was critical of Trump firing his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, when Manafort allegedly had financial connections to Russian oligarchs. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize-winner reasserted her accusation due to how she believed the president to be “a rich man who aspires to combine business with politics and has an entirely cynical and instrumental attitude toward both.”

However, President Trump isn’t the only one.Other notable oligarchies include post-Mao China, when an oligarchy assumed control of the country. Saudi Arabia seems to boast a similar government structure, with king Salman bin Abdulaziz appointing two of his sons to high positions, controlling oil prices and other major policies.

Some have argued that the United States is actually an oligarchy. And, according to a study published in 2014 by Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page, some researchers believe so, too.

So, some researchers have concluded that despite the democratic processes put in place to ensure an even balance of power, it may be the wealthy and elite who are the movers and shakers in forming policy. And while this may not be conclusive evidence that America is actually an oligarchy, it is certainly worth further consideration.

It is a recurrent idea that all forms of government are in the final analysis reducible to the rule of a few. Oligarchs will secure effective control whether the formal authority is vested in the people, a monarch, the proletariat, or a dictator. Thus, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels insisted that, throughout capitalism, the key capitalists had controlled the government; they coined the dictum, the state is the executive committee of the exploiting class. The Italian political scientist Gaetano Mosca likewise insisted that a ruling class always constituted the effective oligarchic control. Vilfredo Pareto elaborated the idea in his doctrine of the “elite”. The modern tendency to analyze social patterns in terms of an “elite”, although greatly reinforced by Pareto’s theory, goes further back than Marx and Engels, who employed the term “elite” to describe the class-conscious communists, the leading group within the proletariat.



If oligarchy could survive even the socialist abolition of private ownership of the means of production, then, of course, this makes the claims for the “iron law” all the stronger.

One of the most famous modern uses of the term occurs in “iron law of oligarchy,” a concept devised by the German sociologist Robert Michels to refer to the alleged inevitable tendency of political parties and trade unions to become bureaucratized, centralized, and conservative. His reasoning was that, no matter how egalitarian or even radical the original ideology and goals of a party or union may be, there must emerge a limited group of leaders at the centre who can direct power efficiently, get things done through an administrative staff, and evolve some kind of rigorous order and ideology to ensure the survival of the organization when faced by internal division and external opposition. Subsequent writers of various persuasions have attempted either to expand on Michels’ thesis, extending it to legislatures, religious orders, and other organizations, or to restrict or criticize the thesis, charging that the iron law of oligarchy is not universal and that some unions and parties do maintain a viable system of democratic expression and governance.

Like it or not, most countries are run by a small group of people who dominate the national policies controlling all aspects of governance and people’s well-being. Throughout history, oligarchy has played a dominant force in all types of political systems and governments. Nowadays, representative government is an artifice, a wishful thinking, and a political myth, because deep down, the masses are under the dominance of a self-selected, self-serving few who deprive the people from their rights.



This reflects the political situation in many African countries across the African continent; the dominance of the very few in a society via the possession, control and management of economic political social and religious resources of the state, use questionable means such as corruption, fear, terror, education and intimidation as a major weapon of control. This is particularly noted in Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea and Nigeria.


“We must not tolerate oppressive government or industrial oligarchy in the form of monopolies and cartels”. (Henry A. Wallace). 


Fellow Nigerians, synergise with me every week, to put our heads together on how to retool Nigeria. Right here on “The Nigerian Project”, by Chief Mike A. A. Ozekhome, SAN, OFR, FCIArb, LL.M, Ph.D, LL.D.

– Nov. 16, 2020 @ 14:15 GMT |

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